Drummers haven't always enjoyed the best reputations as bandleaders, especially in the jazz world, where they've proved, in some cases, prone to excessive soloing, cranking themselves too high in the mix, and appearing on album covers without their shirts. But among the lesser-known bands appearing in this year's Earshot Jazz Festival, which begins Friday night, are two drummer-led bands that bash such stereotypes to oblivion.
Gerry Hemingway has composed and performed everything from orchestral symphonies to sax-drum duos to solo percussion suites. And while his current "working band"a quartet of sax, brass, bass, and drumsplays Hemingway's tunes exclusively, the main goal, he notes, is drawing out each voice in the collective. "I'm clearly an ensemble player," Hemingway says. "This music is about how four people interact."
The quartet's new CD, Devils Paradisewhich features trombonist Ray Anderson, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and Mark Dresser on basswas recorded in Brooklyn in February 1999 but only released a few months ago on Clean Feed, an obscure Portuguese label. It shows a band of strong personalities, totally at ease with the complexities of free blowing and shifting rhythms, while deftly cohering as well for Hemingway's distantly familiar heads. This is unpretentious, listener-grabbing music that hasn't been dumbed down in the least.
An analogue for his concept, says Hemingway, are the old Sonny Rollins quartet dates of the 1960s (e.g., East Broadway Rundown), where "you take melodies and themes that can be grasped, hummed, and felt by a lot of different kinds of ears, then you develop that material in a way that's an adventure every night." The members of Hemingway's touring bandEskelin, trumpeter Herb Robertson, and bassist Mark Heliasare all devoted veterans of what might be called jazz's progressive middle ground: somewhere between the abstruse inventions of Europe, the muscularity of hard bop, and pure freedom freak-outs.
Hemingway says he's keeping the band's book small, with just over a dozen tunes, some of which he's been digging into for a decade or more. He likens his music to "good novels that have good substories and layers and metaphors." This week's chapter will definitely be worth checking out. (You can always catch the Art Ensemble the following nightsee next story.)
SOMETHING SHY OF a generation behind Hemingway, with an approach that shows fundamental kinship while radically diverging on other counts, is John Hollenbeck. Like Hemingway, Hollenbeck has composed and performed on an elastic scale, stretching from chamber choral works to electrified vocal-drum duos. He's played in full-on big bands and toured with modern tango master Pablo Ziegler.
These multiple leanings can be heard in John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, which began with a monthly mid-'90s gig at the East Village hole-in-the-wall Alt.Coffee (owned by the same people behind Tonic), and has since collected raves from key critics at The New York Times, the Voice, and Down Beat. With its ingenious group frenetics and unique timbre of clarinet, vibraphone, and accordion, the Claudia Quintet, as heard on their self-titled 2001 disc for Composers Recordings, is a joyebullient, ambitious music that grooves hard in a dozen different directions.
"I think of it as party music for smart people," says Hollenbeckthough this is the farthest thing from a jam-band set. The solos are tightly structured, the tunes flow in and out of odd time signatures, and the melodic palette draws more from classical, Balkan, and Latin American colors than the predictable rock-funk mélange. Yet in truth, the ingredients are almost too diffuse to be isolated. "The way I write, hopefully, approaches some sort of universal music," says Hollenbeck. "It sounds like everything."
In order to support his band's dense, ringing middle register, Hollenbeck adapts his kit with towels, paper, and bell trees in order to remove the heavy cymbal and tom-tom overtones typical of jazz in favor of a dry, distinct sound more reminiscent of drum and bass. "I'm trying to find a specific sonic area I can inhabit that's not in conflict with anyone else," he says.
The members of his quintet are definitely the sort you don't want to drown out: Seattle-bred woodwind player Chris Speed shines in this band like nowhere elsehis warm, perfectly modulated tone is a distinct contrast to the overblown clarinet shrieks heavily in voguewhile Ted Reichman is perhaps the most humane and engaging of the many avant accordionists currently servicing the "downtown" scene.
Eventually Hollenbeck is hoping to drop his own name from the group moniker and just be known as the Claudia Quintet. "I'm the leader," he says; "I write the pieces, book the gigs, pay everyone. But when we get onstage, I want it to sound like a band." In other words, he's keeping his shirt on.
The Gerry Hemingway Four play the Rainier Valley Cultural Center with Gust Burns/ Adam Diller Duo at 8 p.m. Tues., Oct. 28. $12. John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet play On the Boards with Wayne Horvitz/Briggan Krauss Duo at 8 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 30. $14. Both concerts are part of Earshot Jazz Festival.